Encounter At Bethesda

Gospel of John  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  Presented   •  33:59
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What we will see as Jesus continues his ministry as seen through the eyes of John is an increase in opposition by those deemed religious in the eyes of the common Jew. The opposition gets more heated as Jesus does God’s work and does not adhere to the man-made rules for relationship to God. This event pictures the irony of men more concerned about their rules than that a miracle was performed on a man who had been ill for almost two decades. Such is one of the effects of legalism, a danger then and a danger today for the church of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Legalism is a subtle, silent killer. To combat it, we need to know what it is, how it appears and why it is wrong. Only then can we confront it.
Legalism is righteousness as defined by man, frequently citing God as the source of their standard. In reality, these standards come from culture, tradition, and frequently personal preferences of those who seek to maintain a position of power or influence. How do you know if your spiritually acceptable? You keep the standard. If you do not, you are judged unworthy of God’s favor and others approval, based upon the legalist’s supposed knowledge of how God judges. it is on that basis that they are more than willing to act on God’s behalf.
Legalism and legalists use religious trappings to convince others that their own agendas have God’s approval. These others who follow their agenda soon begin to fear the disapproval of the leaders, who rise in visibility and corresponding control, while the Lord they say they serve fades into obscurity.
Legalism is wrong because it denies God’s grace and it presumes to earn His favor through deeds. It produces either pride for those who keep the standard to their own satisfaction, or it produces depression for those who recognize their utter inability to keep the standard perfectly. The goal of legalism is to give as much criticism as possible and to avoid receiving it at all costs. What it produces in people is what the Lord desires least: pride, self-loathing, hypocrisy, and self-righteousness—this is why it is wrong.

1. A Divine Encounter for a Lame Man, 5:1-5.

In our text today, Jesus has returned to Jerusalem to an unnamed feast. He has been ministering in Galilee for some time, but now, as an observant Jew, He has returned to worship the Lord in Jerusalem.
The last time Jesus came to Jerusalem, He cleansed the temple, claiming ownership of Judaism’s most visible symbol. His purpose was to restore worship. On this trip, He will claim ownership of Judaism’s most treasured institution: the Sabbath. His purpose on this occasion was to restore grace.
Verse 2 describes a place where Jesus visited, a sanitarium, known in the Greek world as an asclepion, that lay just to the north of the great temple built by Herod, a place where the temple authorities, especially the Pharisees, would never have entered and probably rebuked any Jew who did.
This place is called Bethesda, which translates as “house of grace,” or “house of outpouring (of water.” Many have identified this as the twin pools beneath St. Mary’s Monastery They are as large as a football field and about twenty feet deep. The five porticos represent a porch on each side and one dividing the two pools, possible to separate the men from the women. They were open to the public and were a gathering place for beggars and other people, three types described as the blind, the lame (physical disability) and the withered (NASB, disease resulting in disability).
The section marked as the last part of verse 3 and all of verse 4 doesn’t appear in the earliest Greek manuscripts. This may have been added by a scribe to help clarify based on his knowledge of the tradition. It is a curious blend of Hebrew religion and Greek superstition, which held that an angel of God periodically stirred the waters and promised healing to the first invalid able to pull himself into the pool. Today we know that these pools were periodically fed by an underground spring that caused the surface to stir.
This is a fitting image to picture religious legalism. Here we see around the symbol of life (water) lay desperately sick people, waiting for a chance to participate in a pathetic race of invalids to the water, in which healing went to the least needy among them. A “house of grace” it was not!

2. Get Up — Even on The Sabbath, 5:6-10.

The object of Jesus’ focus was a man who had been in his sickness for 38 years, longer than the average life-expectancy for a male in the first-century Roman Empire. He asked this man a question which sounds absurd: “Do you wish to get well?” This certainly got his attention so that Jesus could lead him (and us) toward an important truth.
The man recognized his own helplessness, but blamed it on the fact that he had no “man” to help him. The object of his faith was confused; he was hoping for a bit of superstition, possibly because he felt the temple of Herod had failed him. Many believed that illness was God’s judgment for sin; there may not have been much sympathy for him in the temple.
He also looked to humanity to help him in his crazy race for healing, having lost hope in ever seeing God’s grace. “God helps those who help themselves,” a mantra for our day would apply to him as well — because if you can not help yourself, God won’t either!” But think of whom he is bearing his burden to: the Lord of Life and grace!
Notice what Jesus did. He gave Him what he lacked and so desperately needed, grace in the form of a command: “Get up, pick up your pallet, and walk.”
At once the man’s body responded to the healing power of Jesus through His words of command. John’s record of this event might be a little understated; in any case, the man’s response to Jesus must have been quite a sight! But it was the Sabbath on that day!

3. Sin No Longer, 5:11-15.

The man was observed by the Jews (John’s term for religious authorities) and they kept saying to him, “It is not permissible for you to carry your pallet.” It was forbidden by tradition but perfectly acceptable by the Law of Moses given the extraordinary circumstances. This is an example of a legalism's obsession with the letter of the law while ignoring the inspiration (or the “spirit”) of the law. The context for the words of Jeremiah … Jer. 17:21
Jeremiah 17:21 NASB95
‘Thus says the Lord, “Take heed for yourselves, and do not carry any load on the sabbath day or bring anything in through the gates of Jerusalem.
. . . was his complaint that the seventh day was a day of business as usual, like any other day, instead of a gift from the Lord, so that they would not forget that God is the ultimate source of their sustenance, with their labors being but a means of His provision. The people could stop work, so that they could devote themselves to worship. What a wonderful opportunity was missed when something that should have resulted in joyous praise to God was instead an occasion for severe criticism.
After all, the Pharisees had added a long list of specific prohibitions, establishing thirty-nine categories of forbidden activities for the Sabbath: carrying, burning, extinguishing, finishing, writing, erasing, cooking, washing, sewing, tearing, knotting, untying, shaping, plowing, planting, reaping, harvesting, threshing, winnowing, selecting, sifting, grinding, kneading, combing, spinning, dyeing, chain-stitching, warping, weaving, unraveling, building, demolishing, trapping, shearing, slaughtering, skinning, tanning, smoothing, and marking. This made life more difficult for people by forbidding even the simplest, common-sense activities.
The man gave the reason for his minor violation of the Pharisee’s rules. The Pharisees missed an opportunity to celebrate the grace of God so that they could find the potential threat to their authority and a troublemaker to censure.
Jesus apparently went looking for the man whom He healed in the temple. It must have been a remarkable feeling to be able to return to the temple and worship alongside others, rather than feeling like a pariah. The man was in the right place and Jesus found him.
What Jesus said to the man was simply a reference to Jesus knowing the man’s heart. He had delivered him from his physical affliction; now Jesus sought to save the man from eternal spiritual suffering. The “worse” Jesus had in mind was hell. Jewish theology of the day correctly taught that sin deserves punishment; but the rabbis incorrectly attributed physical illness to God’s wrath. The true, ultimate punishment for sin is eternal torment after death.
The man’s actions to Jesus was not to appreciate the gift of grace given or to defend Jesus’ deed, but to apparently use it for political advantage, to keep himself out of the line of fire and the refocus that fire on the one who had the power to heal—Jesus.
The man “went away” (better, “went after”) with a purpose. This word is a common expression in the Synoptic Gospels for discipleship. Here, the man turned away from following Jesus, thereby affirming his allegiance to the Jewish leaders.

4. The work of God, Father and Son, 5:16-18.

What is the source of the growing tension between Jesus and the religious authorities? The issue at stake is authority. When Jesus cleansed the temple, He did so with divine authority; as the Son of God, He owns the house of God. The religious authorities had usurped the Lord’s ownership of His own house, and resisted His confrontation of their sin.
On this occasion (to be followed by others) Jesus confronts their perversion of God’s Law. The authorities claimed ownership of the Sabbath by objecting to Jesus “doing these things” ( like healing and more acts of grace), activities the Pharisees and their traditions forbid on the Sabbath.
How did Jesus respond? He first refuted their self-serving definition of “work,” and then He claimed ownership of the Sabbath as God.
God, indeed , has never stopped “working.” He just ceased His creative, world-building work, setting it apart as a holy day. Jesus equates His act of grace here with God’s continuing “work,” thereby claiming ownership of the Sabbath. The Law came from God; because it did, God cannot be condemned by the Law. The Son of God was merely continuing to do what He, as the Creator, had been doing since the seventh day of creation.
The leaders got it. They resented His challenging their illegitimate authority and they rejected His claim of equality with God. This is why they were seeking all the more to kill Jesus.
Jesus did not come to establish a new religion, but to restore a broken relationship between God and mankind. He came to restore the true worship of God, which rejoices in the unmerited favor He delights to give. But the ability to accept grace does not come naturally, only supernaturally.
How do we respond to legalism? There are three responses to legalism we can see in the words and deeds of Christ in our text today.
Expose it. The truth of the gospel—the good news of God’s grace received through faith—must refute the claims of tradition, custom, or any other standard of righteousness not explicitly taught in Scripture.
Combat it. Without setting aside kindness, we must be willing to confront the legalist with his or her lies.
Overcome it. Proclaim grace louder, more often, in more places, and to more people than the false prophets of legalism.
When we do this, and people experience grace and learn that it can be theirs, legalism doesn’t stand a chance.
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