This is Guthrie Chamberlain, Your Guide to Wisdom
The Gospel of John – 11 – A Picture Of Legalism – Daily Wisdom/:
The Gospel of John – Part 3 Authentication Of The Word – A Picture Of Legalism, located on pages:
To review John’s Good News up to this point, the Lord’s ministry began well. A bold announcement by John the Baptizer immediately yielded five disciples with an unreserved commitment to following the Son of God. His turning water into wine strengthened His disciples’ faith. Flash forward three years to cleansing the temple. He taught Nicodemus, performed signs in Jerusalem, redeemed a Samaritan town, and healed the royal official’s son, resulting in multitudes from every quarter of Israel trusting Jesus as Savior. While the Lord’s ministry had not been without conflict, the general response to the Word had been belief. Then, something changed, like the first winter chill on an autumn breeze. Not everyone believed right away. A few began to oppose Him openly … followed by more. The Son of God came to shine the light of truth, yet some minds remained darkened. Instead of uniting Israel, the Word began to create sharp divisions. With Jesus being the very embodiment of the Word, we should not be surprised as we read in Hebrews 4:12
For the word of God is alive and powerful. It is sharper than the sharpest two-edged sword, cutting between soul and spirit, between joint and marrow. It exposes our innermost thoughts and desires.
This passage explores how subtle and insidious legalism is, even in our age. The classic legalists of Jesus’ day were the Pharisees, a brotherhood of experts in religion, considered ‘the separated ones.’ Paula and I grew up in churches that tended to be somewhat legalistic, where a list of do’s and don’ts reflected how spiritual you were. While these churches provided a reasonably solid teaching environment, we could not continue to raise our children in that environment. Because legalism is a subtle, silent killer, it gradually robs you of being immersed in God’s grace. We need to understand this enemy before confronting it. We need to know what it is, how it appears, and why it is wrong.
What is legalism?
Legalism is based on lists (legalists love their lists!). If you keep every item on the list of dos and don’ts, you’re deemed spiritually acceptable. In some ways, following a list of rules is more straightforward than allowing the Spirit to lead you through God’s Word. But if you don’t follow the prescribed standard, you are judged unworthy of God’s favor and others’ approval. So naturally, legalists always think they know how God judges, and they are more than willing to act on His behalf.
How does legalism appear?
Legalism that we personally were most familiar with was a list including being at the church every time the doors were open, the music you listened to or sang, the version of the Bible that was used, the type of clothes you wore at church, the people you associated with and your view on the end times. These examples do not condemn Christian organizations, but it is not Biblical when religious trappings convince others that their agendas have God’s approval. As a family, we were becoming increasingly troubled by legalism, the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back, when we decided to invest Sunday evenings with Gramps after Granny died. He needed our companionship, and we needed his. The condemnation we experienced for missing Sunday night services was enough.
Why is legalism wrong?
Legalism denies God’s grace and presumes to earn His favor through deeds. It is artificial righteousness that exalts humanity rather than the Lord. Legalism produces either pride or depression in the people under its spell. Pride for those who keep the list to their satisfaction. Depression for those who recognize their utter inability to keep the list perfectly. Legalism is wrong because it produces in people what the Lord desires least: pride, self-loathing, hypocrisy, and self-righteousness.;:
During passion week, Jesus cleanses the temple to claim absolute ownership of Judaism’s most visible symbol. His purpose will be to restore worship and present himself as the Lamb of God. Before that, this visit to Jerusalem is to claim ownership of Judaism’s most treasured institution: the Sabbath. His purpose on this occasion was to restore grace and abolish legalism. When Jesus arrived in Jerusalem, He visited the infirmary of sorts that lay in the shadow of the great temple built by Herod. 2 Now there is in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda and which is surrounded by five covered colonnades. (bulletin insert – picture)The temple authorities, especially the Pharisees among them, would never have entered the place and probably rebuked any Jew who did.
A portion of 5:3–4 doesn’t appear in the earliest Greek manuscripts. Most likely, an early scribe added the text as a clarification based on his knowledge of the tradition. 3 Here a great number of disabled people used to lie—the blind, the lame, the paralyzed—(and they waited for the moving of the waters. 4 From time to time an angel of the Lord would come down and stir up the waters. The first one into the pool after each such disturbance would be cured of whatever disease they had. )
The name Bethesda (2) is a kind of play on words, meaning “house of grace” or “house of outpouring [water].” A curious blend of Hebrew religion and Greek superstition held that an angel of God periodically stirred the waters and promised healing to the first invalid able to pull himself into the pool. (stir pool) (We now know that the pools were periodically fed by an underground spring that caused the surface to stir.) There could not have been a more fitting image of legalistic religion in all of Israel. Around the symbol of life (water) lay desperately sick people, waiting for the chance to participate in a pathetic race of invalids to the water, in which healing went to the least needy person among them. “House of grace”? What irony!
As Jesus visited weary patients who were vainly trying to heal themselves, He found a man who had been sick for thirty-eight years, longer than the average life expectancy for a male in the first-century Roman Empire. He had been ill for a lifetime. 5 One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. 6 When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, “Do you want to get well?”
John states that Jesus “learned” the man’s history of illness. Either someone had informed the Lord earlier, or He exercised supernatural awareness, John does not say. The question was Jesus’ first words to the man and was probably intended to get his attention before leading him (and us) toward an important truth.
7 “Sir,” the invalid replied, “I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me.” The man’s reply is telling. The Koiné Greek language often used word order for the sake of emphasis. In this case, the man stressed the words “no one”—he did not have anyone that considered him worthy of help. He recognized his helplessness; however, the object of his faith was confused. He hoped for a bit of superstition, perhaps because the temple of Herod had failed him. However, since generally accepted theology held that illness resulted from God’s judgment for sin (9:2), he would not have found much sympathy in the temple.
Furthermore, he looked to humanity to help him win his absurd race for healing, obviously having lost hope of ever seeing God’s pure grace. But, as for many in our day, he thinks, “God helps those who help themselves.” While it may have some Biblical credence in specific situations, it is certainly not in the Bible.
The scene by the pool of Bethesda must have been a soul-rending experience for any visitor with the capacity for empathy. I sometimes wonder why Jesus didn’t heal everyone around the pool of Bethesda instead of choosing just one man. Yet, we must remember that Jesus left the pristine realm of heaven to become one of us, share our suffering, experience death, and ultimately end the tyranny of evil through His sacrifice. One day, Jesus will empty the hospitals and even the world's graveyards. Then we will live in a restored Eden without darkness, sin, suffering, disease, and death. We have His promise on that. I, for one, passionately anticipate that glorious day!
Take note that Jesus didn’t preach. He didn’t correct the man’s failing theology. He didn’t lecture him on grace. People who lack hope don’t need more knowledge; they need compassion. Instead, Jesus gave the man what he lacked and so desperately needed. He gave him grace through a command: 8 Then Jesus said to him, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.” 9 At once, the man was cured; he picked up his mat and walked.
“Instantly,” the man’s body responded to the healing power of Jesus. The man responded to the words of his Lord. John’s description of the scene is undoubtedly a deliberate understatement. I’m sure that after nearly four decades of atrophied limbs and withered hope, the man skipped, ran, leaped, and did cartwheels around that wretched pool. He must have been a sight!
As the reader, we celebrate the man’s healing, but John’s sidebar drops like a wet blanket. He says 9The day on which this took place was a Sabbath; anyone who knew anything about Pharisees understood the significance of that simple statement. His literary killjoy foreshadows a bizarre twist to the story.
10 and so the Jewish leaders said to the man who had been healed, “It is the Sabbath; the law forbids you to carry your mat.” While John doesn’t interrupt the logical flow of the story, there is an apparent change of scene. The man was probably carrying his bedroll home, or perhaps to the temple, where he would partake of the feast for the first time in many years. But instead, he was scolded by “the Jewish Leaders” (John’s term for “religious authorities”) for carrying something on the Sabbath, which was strictly forbidden by tradition but perfectly acceptable by the Law of Moses, given the extraordinary circumstances. Remember, though, they had created the Talmud, which had 24 chapters of rules for the Sabbath. (Bulletin Insert – Sabbath)applied the words of Jeremiah:
The Lord instituted the Sabbath as a gift. He ordered a day of rest to rejuvenate the bodies and minds of His people. More importantly, it was given to break the day-in, day-out routine cycle so that people would not forget that God is the ultimate source of their sustenance; their labors are but a means of His provision. The Sabbath permitted people to stop work, and not to neglect a vital need: worship. We are created for worship; therefore, worship is good for us. But the Pharisees turned this wonderful gift of God into a burden, an occasion for severe criticism, an excuse to exercise power, and yet another opportunity to remind themselves and everyone else of their superior moral worth.
The healed man explained the extraordinary reason for his minor violation of the Pharisees’ rules: 11 But he replied, “The man who made me well said to me, ‘Pick up your mat and walk.’ ” But take note of the glass-half-empty perspective of the Pharisees, which would be comical if it weren’t so appalling: 12 So they asked him, “Who is this fellow who told you to pick it up and walk?”
Any average person would have been at least a little intrigued by the man’s instant healing. But the Pharisees bypassed an opportunity to celebrate the grace of God to flush out a potential threat to their authority. Instead of looking for a wonder worker to praise, the Pharisees searched for a troublemaker to censure. 13 The healed man had no idea who it was, for Jesus had slipped away into the crowd there.
14 Later Jesus found him at the temple and said, “See, you are well again. Stop sinning, or something worse may happen to you.” John wrote that Jesus “found” the man in the temple, which strongly suggests He had been looking for him, not that He just happened to see him. According to Old Testament Law, a person healed of leprosy was to be examined by a priest and declared “clean” It’s possible the Pharisees added this requirement to other ailments. Or was the man simply grateful to worship alongside his Jewish brothers. Regardless, the man was in the right place, and Jesus found him.
Some have taken Jesus’ warning to mean that sin had caused man’s illness. Still, Jesus later denied a moral cause-effect relationship between sin and physical disabilities (John 9:3). A more straightforward explanation is that Jesus knew the man’s heart. Having delivered the man from his physical affliction, Jesus sought to save him from eternal spiritual suffering. The “worse” Jesus had in mind was hell. Jewish theology of the day correctly taught that sin deserves punishment; however, the rabbis incorrectly attributed physical illness to God’s wrath. The true and ultimate penalty for sin is eternal torment after death.
The man’s response to Jesus’ incredibly generous gift of grace is perplexing. 15 The man went away and told the Jewish leaders that it was Jesus who had made him well. But, rather than defend Jesus’ deed, he appears to use it for political advantage. He says, in effect, “I didn’t want to violate your rules—that man that Rabbi told me to do it. And who was I to question someone with the power to heal? Your argument is with him, not me!”
The Greek word rendered “went away” is better translated as “went after” and usually indicates purpose. It’s a common expression in the Synoptic Gospels for discipleship. One “goes after” a mentor to learn from him. The man stopped following Jesus and affirmed his allegiance to the Jewish leaders. His response to Jesus proved quite different from that of another man healed by the Lord (9:13–34).
John closes the story with two comments that explain the source of the growing tension between Jesus and the religious authorities. Their dispute is no mere squabble among theologians. The issue at stake is authority. 16 So, because Jesus was doing these things on the Sabbath, the Jewish leaders began to persecute him.
On this occasion, and on others to follow, Jesus confronted the religious authorities on their perversion of God’s Law. This particular healing begged the question, “Who owns the Sabbath?” The religious leaders claimed ownership of the Sabbath by objecting to Jesus “doing these things” (implying more acts of grace than this particular healing), activities the Pharisaic tradition forbids on the seventh day.
Jesus responded to the religious leaders’ false claim in two ways: 17 In his defense Jesus said to them, “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working.” He began by pointing out that God had never stopped “working.” This goes to the root of the religious leaders’ theological presumption that “work” includes any activity. They pointed to Exod. 20:9–11 as precedence, which points to Gen. 2:3
Having refuted the faulty theology of the religious leaders, Jesus equated His act of grace with God’s continuing “work of grace.” This was an outright claim to ownership of the Sabbath. Because the Law came from God, God cannot be condemned by the Law. The Son of God continued to do what He, as the Creator, had been doing since the seventh day of creation.
His point was not lost on the religious authorities. They resented His challenging their illegitimate authority and rejected His claim of equality with God. This precipitated their plot to kill Him. 18 For this reason they tried all the more to kill him; not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.
The Word didn’t become flesh to establish a new religion. He became one of us to restore a broken relationship. He came to restore the true worship of God, which doesn’t presume to earn His blessing through good deeds but rejoices in the unmerited favor He delights to give. Unfortunately, the roots of pride run deep into our flesh; therefore, the ability to accept grace does not come naturally, only supernaturally. We must be vigilant that our spiritual lives do not become a list we follow but are filled with grace that we share with all.
Next Sunday is Palm Sunday, so we will depart from our study in John for two weeks. Next week our message will be, He Is The King of Kings. Please read Matthew 21:1-16 in preparation for next week’s message.