John’s Gospel: Reflections on Chapter 9, Part 2 (Why heal on the Sabbath?)

We regularly ask why it was okay for Jesus to heal on the Sabbath, but we rarely ask why he chose to do so.

Think about it. John expends chapters 5, 7, 8, and 9 dealing with Jesus’ healing on the Sabbath, not to debate whether that was sin but to consider the reaction of the people to Jesus’ behavior.

We see that the choice put Jesus very much at risk for his life. Indeed, but for God’s own intervention, surely he would have been arrested, if not stoned by vigilante justice. This is not the behavior of conventional wisdom!

Growing up, I was taught that preserving my reputation among fellow Christian is of the essence

(Pro 22:1 KJV)  A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches, and loving favour rather than silver and gold.

In my home church, we had this verse down stone cold. It was a standard memory verse for the young people to learn. It was the standard proof text for all sorts of things, the general idea being that, if a church down the road might think less of you for a decision, you’d better not go there.

As a result, our supposedly autonomous congregation was very concerned about its reputation among other Churches of Christ. We cared nothing about the opinions of the Baptists or other denominations (since they were all going straight to hell), but the opinions of other Church of Christ congregations mattered quite a lot — especially if they were of the same faction as us.

We were hardly alone. This was standard cant among the Churches. The result was a strictly enforced uniformity of practice and doctrine despite being non-creedal, indeed, considering creeds to be sinful.

Church periodicals were an important means of communicating the standard expectations for one of our Churches, so that “reputation” came to mean “well-regarded by the editors.” Indeed, any study of Church of Christ history reveals the vast power and influence of the editors, due to their ability to create the impression that certain teachings and behaviors were acceptable and others were not — all due to our overwhelming desire to maintain a good reputation among our sister congregations.

And yet Jesus destroyed his own reputation just to heal a lame man at the Pool of Bethesda. He could’ve healed every sick, blind, and lame person there, but he picked just one — and he healed him on a Sabbath. Jesus wasn’t leaving town. He could’ve come back Sunday.

Just so, Jesus healed a blind beggar on a Sabbath, and obviously was in town the next several days. He could have waited.

By waiting a single day, Jesus’ reputation would have been much better among the religious leaders of his day. In fact, they might have been sufficiently open-minded to inquire more deeply into his birth. Might they have come to faith? Maybe?

Obviously, the odds of bringing them to faith would have been better — had Jesus simply toed the line, acted like a good Jew, adhered to the expectations of the leaders, respected his elders, and waited for Sunday — Saturday night would have worked — to heal.

But he didn’t. Why not?

The answer is not obvious. It seems pretty clear that he wasn’t intending to provoke his arrest. His time had not yet come.

Jesus didn’t follow up with a lecture on the errors in the Oral Law, defending his decision. He made some arguments, but the stories aren’t really about the reasons it was okay for the Son of God to heal on a Saturday. Those parts of the story are almost incidental.

You have to figure that Jesus was making a much larger point. Part of that point is the fact that his healings really happened. The lame man could walk; the blind man could see. God obviously approved of Jesus’ decisions.

Now ponder that one. Here we have a contradiction between what God himself is plainly doing and the leadership’s understanding of the Law, and the leadership decides that the Law (as they had interpreted it) prevails over what is happening before their very eyes.

And that’s the point, I think. John’s Gospel is all about testimony, and Jesus argues that one witness to his true nature is God himself — and obviously so as Jesus was busy doing miracles by a power that could only come from God.

Thus, Jesus argues, God is not a closed book. His self-revelation doesn’t end with the Torah, nor with Malachi. God was still revealing himself — through Jesus, the Word.

If God was still revealing himself, then the new facts, God’s new mighty miracles, just might shed new light on old assumptions. The leaders should have realized the need to reconsider things, because God plainly had concluded that they needed to know more about him.

As Christians, looking back 2,000 years, it seems so obvious. There was a whole ‘nother testament to be written! The Law would be re-interpreted and fulfilled in light of Jesus. But this would not have been obvious to many at the time.

The Jews had sacrificed much to live in Judea and worship God according to the Torah. Most likely had relatives who had died at the hands of Romans and Hellenists to fight for the right to keep the Sabbath and God’s other laws. They were deeply invested in the status quo.

Of course, they’d read the prophecies of the Kingdom, but the prophecies were far from plain that the Law would be re-envisioned, fulfilled, and transformed by the Messiah. That was not all that clear. Indeed, there were plenty of prophecies that seemed to indicate to the contrary, that the Kingdom would finally bring true obedience (which is true, of course, but true obedience requires true understanding, which requires additional revelation. But who knew?)

And so, Jesus shows up, announces that he is the Son of Man, empowered by God to do his works and spread his message, and he pokes at the perfect spot to demonstrate the need for things to change. He heals on the Sabbath, and all hell breaks loose — just as Jesus wanted.

You see, Jesus demonstrated his personal superiority over the Sabbath because God smiled on his Saturday miracle working.  Jesus showed that compassion for the hurting was more important that scrupulous law keeping — even when it was clearly possible to do both. He proved that compassion is far more important than reputation. Indeed, compassion is worth risking the life of even the Messiah.

Moreover, he demonstrated that such acts of compassion tend to separate light from darkness, believers from skeptics, God’s children from children of Satan. It doesn’t take much to cause people to sort themselves out, if you’re willing to risk your reputation — maybe even your life.

Is there a modern application? Or did God finish revealing himself in First Century Rome? Well, does God still do miracles? Better yet, is God still active in human affairs in a way that is discernible (not “provable,” but “discernible”) through the eyes of faith?

Well, there are some modern-day Deists in the Churches of Christ, but most of us believe that God answers prayer and is otherwise active among his people, although many, perhaps most, might question the wisdom of using “miracle” in such a context. Nonetheless, yes, we agree: God is, for those with faith, discernibly active today.

Because that’s so, we must acknowledge that each activity of God is an act of self-revelation. He may not be laying out new doctrine (hardly the point of self-revelation, really), but he is telling us about who God is (which is the point).

Every word I type, every decision I make, everything I do reveals something about me. The same is true of God. God continues to reveal things about himself. Whether these are “new” things is hardly important. He doesn’t change and so he doesn’t reveal himself in a way that contradicts previous revelation. But he does sometimes force us to rethink things because we really, really, really misunderstood.

Is this a legitimate way to think? Well, if Jesus damned the Pharisees for missing this very point, who do we think we are to be above such reflection?

When God equips a woman to lead a ministry with male volunteers, he reveals quite a lot about himself and his will. If we really believe that giftedness comes by the Spirit, then the choice of whom to equip is God’s, and the fact that God himself made that decision would seem to conclusively authorize the use of the gift in his service. Right?

Of course, there’s an exception when to honor God’s will might hurt our reputation with friends, family, and other Churches of Christ in the area. NO, NO, NO! A thousands times NO!! Read your Bibles. Study God’s story. Consider the blind man healed by Jesus, who gave up his reputation, family, and friends just so he could declare, “I was blind, but now I see,” so he could finally behold the face of the Son of Man and prostrate himself in worship.

That, we are to understand, is the correct response to God’s ongoing self-revelation.

(Mat 16:2-3 ESV) 2 He answered them, “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’  3 And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.”

God is alive and doing great things in his church. Many are looking the other way, hoping that the changes won’t change things for them. But we are challenged by Jesus to interpret the signs of the times.

We need to be doing just that.

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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