John’s Gospel: Reflections on John’s Gospel, Part 4.1 (Why Heal on the Sabbath?)

There’s another point in John that’s far from obvious unless you study the entire book at once. One of the major themes of the book is Jesus’ insistence on healing on the Sabbath.

Really? Yep. In John 5, Jesus heals a lame man on the Sabbath. In John 7, Jesus defends his decision to do so. The discourse continues to the end of chapter 8, interrupted only by the insertion of the story about the woman taken in adultery. Then in chapter 9, Jesus heals a man born blind.

The largest portions of chapters 5, 7, 8, and 9 all deal with Jesus’ healing on the Sabbath. That’s a lot of text to dedicate to that one issue — an issue that you’d think wouldn’t matter outside of Judea, where the Pharisees carried great influence.

In fact, most consider John to have been written to a largely Gentile audience in Asia Minor, and yet the Greeks and Romans in Asia Minor would have cared nothing about the Sabbath and the punctilious rule-keeping of the Pharisees. Why make such a big deal out the Sabbath?

Moreover, given how important the sinlessness of Jesus is to atonement theology, why would John make such a point of presenting Jesus as breaking the rules of the Pharisees? After all, the Torah plainly teaches the Jews not to work on the Sabbath — on penalty of death.

I previously mentioned the nationalistic implications of the passages. Many Jews had ancestors who’d died at the hands of the Greeks — the legions of Antiochus Epiphanies, who attacked Jerusalem on a Sabbath, knowing the Jews would not defend themselves. Thousands died, preferring to honor the Sabbath to preserving their lives and national freedom.

Ultimately, the Jews rose up in rebellion and defeated the Greeks, becoming an independent nation for the first time since their defeat at the hands of the Babylonians. And they took great pride in this period of independence, later ended when the Romans conquered them.

But what’s the relevance to the Gentiles of Asia Minor? What does this tell us about the nature of Christianity?

Well, I think you have to take these extensive passages dealing with the Sabbath in light of this passage —

(John 4:22-24 ESV)  22 “You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.  23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him.  24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”

Parallel, I think, is the next-to-last verse of Isaiah —

(Isa 66:23 ESV) 23 From new moon to new moon, and from Sabbath to Sabbath, all flesh shall come to worship before me, declares the LORD.

The worship of God, in the Kingdom, will be universal — not just for the Jews. And it won’t just happen on Sabbaths and “new moons” (monthly convocations) (Num 28:11; 29:6).

In an age when “worship” meant “go to Jerusalem and sacrifice an animal at the Temple,” Isaiah prophesied a dramatic change. It would obviously be impossible for the Gentiles to appear at the Temple to offer sacrifice when the Gentiles lived all over the world. By the time of Jesus, even very few Jews could fully honor Torah because it was impractical to appear in Jerusalem at the festivals and for sacrifice for those Jews scattered across the Empire. If the Gentiles were to be invited in, it would be all the more impossible.

Therefore, Jesus tells the Samaritan woman that, when the Samaritans (and Gentiles) are invited into the Kingdom, everything would change. The means of worshiping God would no longer be about a time, a place, and an animal.

Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple points us in the same direction. Yes, the Temple needed a good cleansing even by Mosaic standards, but Jesus’ actions point toward us toward the inadequacies of the Temple system.

Why did the priests have to sell unblemished lambs to the pilgrims? Because it was impossible to bring their own lambs from Spain and Babylon. The dangers of travel were such that you just couldn’t bring along a lamb without blemish and expect it to remain without blemish. The system no longer worked.

The same is true of the coinage. The Jews could have their own coins in Judea, but in the rest of the Empire, the coins were minted by Rome or other pagan authorities. The requirement to contribute “clean” coinage at the Temple was unworkable, leading to the need for money changers, which led to corruption.

Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisees’ insistence that no one heal on a Sabbath can thus be seen as one more pointer away from the Torah’s system. A day of rest that made sense in its original context, understood as a blessing for the people, had become a burden, even a curse, on God’s worshipers.

Yes, the problem arose much more from the absurd interpretations of the law than from the law itself, but Sabbath keeping was just unworkable outside of Judea — and as Jesus proved, inhuman at times even in Judea.

Remember: the rule was “no work,” not “only NFL football, Sunday lunch, and hospital visitations.” Those who believe they honor Sunday as the Christian Sabbath have not bothered to study the Sabbath regulations laid down by Moses. Even picking up sticks resulted in the death penalty. Our Sunday practices, such as cooking fried chicken or roast beef for Sunday lunch, would be forbidden, even subject to capital punishment. (It’s truly astonishing how some can insist on a “Christian Sabbath” while utterly ignoring the rules regarding Sabbath keeping.)

Over and over, Jesus subtly but pointedly critiques the Law of Moses as it was interpreted and applied, with the inevitable conclusion that the Law needed to be re-interpreted in light of Jesus.

Another critical passage, I believe, is —

(John 9:35-38 ESV)  35 Jesus heard that they had cast him out, and having found him he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”  36 He answered, “And who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?”  37 Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and it is he who is speaking to you.”  38 He said, “Lord, I believe,” and he worshiped him.

The blind man had been rejected by his synagogue. He’d been expelled from conventional Jewish religious life. And upon being expelled from Judaic practices, he found Jesus and was freed to worship truly.

“Worship” is proskuneo — the word used in the Septuagint to mean: go to Jerusalem to sacrifice an animal to God in the Temple.

Thus, Jesus redefines “worship” in an entirely new way — a way that frees the new church, the Kingdom, to worship without pilgrimages to Jerusalem or spotless lambs or even Sabbaths and synagogues. Indeed, you could be thrown out of the synagogue, only to find yourself at the feet of the Savior, in a perfect posture to offer true worship — worship in Spirit and in truth.

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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